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Samsung Galaxy S21 review: A flagship that has learned the right lessons
by João Carrasqueira
I got to review a few Samsung phones throughout 2020, and it has definitely taken some time for the company's hardware to really resonate with me. I was very underwhelmed by the Galaxy A51 mid-ranger about a year ago, and when I finally got to review a flagship - the Galaxy Note20 Ultra - the issues it presented were far too significant for it to be worth its massive asking price.
But then came the Galaxy S20 FE, a much cheaper phone that kept the essentials of a 2020 flagship while cutting corners in a few small ways to attain its price point. For what it set out to do, the S20 FE was a fantastic device, and it left me hoping that Samsung would take away some lessons from it and make future Galaxy S phones more appealing.
Samsung announced the Galaxy S21 lineup last month with a significant reduction to its starting price - now just $799, instead of the S20's $999 - as well as some of the sacrifices we saw on the Galaxy S20 FE. After a couple of weeks with the S21, I think it's safe to say that Samsung learned the lessons I was hoping it would and created a fantastic baseline for its flagships in 2021.
CPU Exynos 2100 (Octa-core) - one Cortex-X1 at 2.9GHz, three Cortex-A78 at 2.8GHz, four Cortex-A55 at 2.2GHz GPU Mali-G78 MP14 Display 6.2 inches, 1080x2400, 421ppi, 120Hz, Dynamic AMOLED 2X Body 151.7x71.2x7.9mm (5.97x2.80x0.31in), 169g (5.96oz) Camera 12MP main + 12MP ultra-wide + 64MP telephoto, Front - 10MP Video 8K - 24fps or 4K - 60fps, HDR10+, Front - 4K - 60fps Aperture f/1.8 + f/2.2 + f/2.0, Front - F/2.2 Storage 128GB UFS 3.1; non-expandable RAM 8GB Battery 4,000mAh Color Phantom White (as reviewed), Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink, Phantom Violet
OS Android 11 with OneUI 3.1 Price €849-€879/$799 Of course, this is the European variant of the Galaxy S21, which means it comes with an Exynos processor, but you'll be getting a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 if you buy this phone in the U.S. I can't personally compare the two variants directly, but I will say that I don't think having an Exynos model is as much of a problem this year as it was last year. I'll get into that more later on.
When you look at it broadly, the Galaxy S21 is a fairly generic smartphone slab. It has a plastic back, one of the compromises it borrows from the Galaxy S20 FE, but it keeps the metal frame and overall feels more solidly built than that phone. It's also a very compact phone by today's standards, thanks to its relatively small 6.2-inch display and the minimal bezels all around. It's actually refreshing to have a phone that's this easy to handle nowadays.
The thing that really makes me swoon over this phone's design is the camera module. I realize that's probably a weird thing to say, but the way it's made of metal and melts into the frame of the phone is just so nice and gives it such a distinct look that I can't help but love it. If you look closely, there is a bit of a ridge between the actual frame and the camera module, but it's barely noticeable and doesn't ruin the look at all. Samsung sent me the Phantom White model, and while I wish I had the Phantom Purple with its golden accents, this look really grew on me. It's classy without being too boring, and I'll definitely say I'm glad I didn't get the gray model.
Moving on from the back and going around the phone, it's all pretty standard. The left side of the frame has no buttons, but there are some antenna bands.
Over on the right side, there's the power/Bixby button along with the volume rocker, with all of the buttons feeling having a nice clicky feel to them.
The top edge is also fairly empty, featuring two microphones very close to each other, only separated by an antenna band.
Finally, the bottom edge has everything else you'd expect to find - a USB Type-C port for charging, a SIM card slot, and the bottom-firing speaker grill. There's one more microphone next to the SIM card slot, and if it's not obvious, you want to push the SIM ejection tool into the hole inside the SIM card tray cutout. You could damage the microphone by poking it with the tool.
Display and sound
Over on the front, of course, is the display. It's a 6.2-inch panel with Full HD+ resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate - another smart move by Samsung to cut costs, which we saw on the Galaxy S20 FE. Samsung phones have had Quad HD+ displays for a while, but I think it's the most obvious way companies can save money without hurting the user experience nearly as much. With the Galaxy S20, you'd have to choose between Quad HD+ resolution or the 120Hz refresh rate, and I would always have recommended the latter either way, so I endorse this change.
The panel is also using Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED 2X technology and it continues to be oh-so-great. Samsung's displays have long been known for looking great, and suffice it to say, that hasn't changed. The colors look absolutely fantastic, the color temperature is great, and of course, because it's AMOLED, blacks are truly black since pixels can be turned off on demand.
The display is only interrupted by a small punch-hole cutout in the middle of the top edge of the display, which houses the selfie camera. Bezels are getting smaller all the time, and they're very minimal here, even smaller than those of the Galaxy S20 FE. Samsung also seems to keep shrinking the grill for the earpiece more and more, to the point where I initially thought there was some kind of under-display sound system here.
But there isn't, and the sound from this phone is actually great. The stereo setup enabled by the bottom-firing speaker and amplified earpiece sounds crisp and clear, and it can get pretty loud without any significant distortion. The Galaxy S21 is truly a great phone if you want a good media experience.
The camera setup on the Galaxy S21 is one of the things that's changed the least from last year. There's still a 12MP main camera, another 12MP ultra-wide lens, and a 64MP telephoto camera with 3x optical zoom, with support for up to 30x zoom. It's not just the resolution either - the pixel size and aperture are all the same as last year's cameras, too.
The video features are also pretty similar here, with support for up to 8K video recording at 24 frames per second or 4K at 60 frames per second. You can record HDR10+ video as an experimental feature, but only at 4K 30fps or lower.
As for the actual results when using the camera, it really depends on the situation. In daylight, all of the cameras do pretty well in my opinion. Shots are bright and vivid, there's good contrast, and they're generally very clear, each object in the frame pops and looks great. There is a bit of oversaturation, per Samsung's tradition, but in general, I didn't mind it.
Gallery: Galaxy S21 samples
Things start to fall apart a bit when it comes to nighttime. Night mode kicks in automatically when it's deemed appropriate, but it's not that great, and the ultra-wide camera especially is evidently not as good as the others. Sometimes night mode doesn't activate for the ultra-wide camera automatically, so you can see major differences in the final shot, though you can always manually use night mode. Pictures, in general, degrade quite a bit in less than optimal lighting conditions, and that's even more true for videos, and while that can be said for all cameras, it seems especially not great here.
I do like the ability to switch between different zoom levels, though, and while the maximum 30x zoom Samsung advertises is pretty bad, 3x zoom is actually really nice, though not comparable to the 10X you can get with a periscope lens.
The phone also comes with the most recent version of Samsung's One UI, so there are some new features in the Camera and Gallery apps that I do find cool. The Camera app has a couple of new video features including multi-mic recording, which lets you record video with audio simultaneously coming from the phone's microphones and a Bluetooth microphone or earbuds. Of course, the quality of the audio will depend on the microphone you're using, but testing with LG's Tone Free HBS-FN6 earbuds, I did find it picked up my voice better while walking down the street compared to just using the microphone on the phone itself. There's also a Director's View mode, which lets you see video feeds from all four cameras on the phone at once and switch between the three rear cameras at will.
The Gallery app, for its part, has an interesting feature for photos called Object Eraser, which does exactly what you think. It does require a consistent background to look convincing, but if you had the perfect shot that got ruined by someone in the background, this can definitely help.
On a final note, while I rarely take selfies on any phone, I did give it a shot here and the front-facing camera is actually among the sharpest I've tried. Overall, the camera experience has some highs and some lows, but you probably already know what you're getting into if you've had a Samsung phone before.
Performance, battery life, and software
Battery life was one of my biggest complaints with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, and that was almost certainly due to the poor efficiency of the Exynos 990 chipset. That phone struggled to last me through the day with a 4,5000mAh battery, but I'm happy to report that Samsung made great progress with Exynos this year. The Galaxy S21 has the new Exynos 2100 and even with a smaller 4,000mAh battery, it holds up much better. It's not fantastic, and when I push it with longer YouTube sessions or playing games, it doesn't quite last me until bedtime, but for my general use, it's been much more reliable. I have yet to review any phone with the new Snapdragon 888, but general impressions from other reviewers indicate that Qualcomm is still ahead here. Still, if you're in an Exynos market, this is a huge improvement.
I should note that, following in Apple's footsteps, Samsung did remove the charging brick from the box, and you only get a cable now. The idea companies are taking with this is that it's "environmentally friendly", and while I think that's true, it's no secret that companies are always trying to squeeze more money out of their consumers. I do think most users will already have a charger they can use at home, but this step highlights a major need for standardization in USB power delivery. The Galaxy S21 supports fast charging up to 25W, but my 65W charger from OPPO can't activate fast charging for it. Companies would usually ship the most adequate charger for their own phones, and we're going to be losing that. The Galaxy S21 also supports fast wireless charging at 15W and reverse wireless charging.
Moving on to benchmarks, the Exynos 2100 in the Galaxy S21 is overall a pretty solid upgrade over Exynos 990-powered phones. Let's start with AnTuTu, which is a general-purpose benchmark covering CPU, GPU, memory/storage, and overall user experience.
The Galaxy S21's score of 609,292 is a pretty big jump from the Note20 Ultra's 548,110, with improvements across the board. The biggest leap here is in the GPU tests, and to be fair, the Galaxy S21 ran games like Asphalt 9 beautifully. Compared to the Galaxy S20 FE 5G, which had a Snapdragon 865, the difference is less noticeable, but it's still an improvement on almost every front.
Moving on to GeekBench 5, which tests the CPU. The Galaxy S21 manages a 1,079 score for the single-core performance and 3,370 for multi-core.
As expected, the Galaxy S21 has a decent lead on both the Exynos 990 and the Snapdragon 865, especially in multi-core performance.
Finally, there's GFXBench, a series of tests focused on the GPU.
Results here are a bit mixed, with the Galaxy S21 pulling some punches on the Note20 Ultra, but also falling behind in some of the tests.
Overall, though, the performance on this phone is great and there's really not much to complain about. The phone does have a tendency to get warm more easily than others, but it's not a huge deal.
Not a whole lot has changed on the software side with OneUI 3.1, but there are some tweaks with the experience. You can now control smart home devices using the Devices button in the notification shade, assuming you have a smart home app like Google Home installed. Stock Android 11 brought smart home controls to the power menu, but Samsung didn't do that, which is a bummer to me. Some UI tweaks have also been made to the volume flyout and the long-press UI in the One UI launcher.
I will point out that I've been trying to use Dex more in my Samsung reviews, and it's a really cool feature to have. Like I've said before, it's pointless if you have a PC on you, but if you don't, it can turn your phone into a PC easily, though you won't be doing certain things like advanced photo or video editing on it. You need to relearn some shortcuts if you're used to Windows, but it's otherwise an effective productivity tool - I even used it to write a good chunk of this review. Also, if you're wondering, you can't use the Windows 10 Your Phone app (or the Link to Windows feature) while running in DeX, though I don't see why you would want to.
I have to conclude this review in the same way that I started it - by saying that Samsung has learned the right lessons with its phones this year. What stands out the most to me is the inspiration Samsung drew from the Galaxy S20 FE to make its flagship phone way easier to justify. Removing the Quad HD display and swapping the glass plate for plastic are the perfect sacrifices to make, and the $200 you save compared to last year's Galaxy S20 make this so much easier to recommend.
I also love the design, specifically thanks to the meta camera bump Samsung has used, and also because it's one of the most compact phones I've had the chance to try out. And for users outside of North America, the Exynos 2100 is a huge improvement in both battery life and performance. You're truly getting a lot more phone for your money this year.
Of course, there are downsides, battery life still isn't as great as it could potentially be, and the camera experience isn't consistently amazing, especially in situations with less than optimal lighting. And the lack of a charger, while not a huge deal to me personally, might be a problem for some people.
Still, those are relatively small blemishes on a phone that otherwise improved so much on its predecessor. If you haven't upgraded in a while, or if you're simply looking to upgrade and you're already familiar with Samsung, the Galaxy S21 is definitely worth a look. You can buy the Snapdragon variant in the U.S. on Amazon, where it's currently discounted to $699.99, making it an even better deal. In the UK, the Exynos variant (the one we tested), is available starting at £735.80 depending on your color of choice.
By Abhay V
One UI 3.1 for the Galaxy Z Fold2 brings multitasking and ease-of-use improvements
by Abhay Venkatesh
Samsung recently detailed the new features brought by the latest One UI 3.1 update to its flagship tablets, the Galaxy Tab S7 series, and the Galaxy S20 lineup. While the update for the tablets brought with it improved cross-device usability with the company’s flagship phones, the release for the Galaxy S20 line introduced a bunch of camera features from the S21 series. Today, the company highlighted the improvements that the latest update brings to the Galaxy Z Fold2.
For its foldable screen-sporting device, which is now receiving the latest Android 11-based OS update, the South Korean giant is focusing on multitasking and ease-of-use enhancements. The first of the improvements come to the task switcher, or as Samsung calls it, the “Recents” tab.
Users can now directly switch to previously opened ‘Multi-Active Windows’ at once from the task switcher, meaning that if three apps were opened in a multi-window setup on the main screen and the user navigates to another app, the task switcher will let them return to the multi-window setup as is. The feature also lets users move two out of the three apps from the main screen to the cover display.
Additionally, One UI 3.1 on the Z Fold2 adds the ability to drag an app from the notification shade and drop it into Multi-Active Windows. For example, users can drag a messaging app into a split view right from the notification shade, draft a response or add multimedia content and send it, and then dismiss the app. This negates the need to break away from the current app and helps make better use of the screen real estate.
As for the ease-of-use improvements, the firm is adding a new ‘Palm touch to turn off screen’ feature that lets users use a gesture or double-tap to turn off the device’s screen. This makes it easier to lock the device in instances where your hands are full and you can't reach the power button – especially considering how you would not want to try juggling with an expensive foldable.
The other usability enhancement comes in the way of the choice to move the camera controls in the Camera app when using Flex mode – a mode that adapts the UI of the device when it is partially folded –, giving users more control over where they want the shutter button or other options situated on the massive main display. The firm has also added Delete and Share buttons in image previews in Flex mode.
While the changes aren’t massive by any means, these simple additions further improve the user experience on the Z Fold2. In addition to these, One UI 3.1 brings a host of other features such as Eye Comfort Shield, app continuity improvements, and much more. You can head to our detailed rundown of what’s new with the update here. One UI 3.1 has begun rolling out to the Galaxy Z Fold2 this week, so all users should begin seeing the update soon.
By Rich Woods
Samsung reportedly releasing an Exynos-powered Windows 10 PC this year
by Rich Woods
Samsung Galaxy Book2 Samsung is no stranger to making Windows on ARM PCs, releasing devices for the most recent two generations of Qualcomm's Snapdragon Compute Platforms. But while Windows on ARM is referred to by some as Windows on Snapdragon, that phrase might not be accurate soon, as Samsung might just be working on a laptop that uses its own processor.
The report comes out of ZDNet Korea (via SamMobile), and it claims that Samsung is going to release an Exynos-powered laptop this year. It's going to come with an Exynos 2200 chipset, and even more interestingly, an AMD GPU.
Samsung and AMD have both confirmed that they were working together on a new chipset. The going assumption and rumor was that that chipset was going to be for an upcoming version of the Galaxy Z Fold. As it turns out, the two firms have completely different ambitions in mind.
As it stands right now, the only officially supported ARM processors for Windows 10 are made by Qualcomm. The only other chip vendor that's making ARM processors for PCs, obviously, is Apple, which is transitioning its Mac lineup to its custom SoCs. Indeed, compared to just a few years ago, there's a ton of competition for Intel, which is the market incumbent. AMD's Ryzen processors are better than ever, and this is the first time in years that a new architecture is supported by Windows. It would seem that Samsung is set to become another competitor for Intel.
The new Exynos-powered PC is set to arrive this year, and according to the report, it should show up in the third quarter. It's unclear, however, if Samsung is going to push the same value proposition as other ARM chip-makers. Apple is boasting performance and battery life, while Qualcomm champions its integrated cellular connectivity and fanless designs. With an AMD GPU, it's possible that Samsung could go for power.
Samsung's Mobility Enhancer technology improves MIMO throughput by 30%
by João Carrasqueira
Cellular tower image via Shutterstock Samsung is improving the quality of its mobile networks thanks to a new solution it calls Mobility Enhancer, the company announced today. As the name implies, the focus of the technology is to improve the experience for users while they're on the move, which usually causes data speeds to get worse due to instability.
Mobility Enhancer is a software solution that Samsung is applying to its Massive MIMO radios, and it improves the beamforming technology in those radios to make them more accurate for moving users. Samsung tested the technology in a field trial and found that data throughput was up by as much as 30% for a walking user. JeongHo Park, VP and Head of the Advanced System Design lab at Samsung's network division, said:
Since it's a software solution, it's easier to upgrade than if it required new hardware, and Samsung says it will deliver software updates to its Massive MIMO radios around the world this year, so those performance improvements shouldn't be too far off. While the focus is naturally on 5G, the technology should benefit 4G users, too.
By Steven P.
Deal of the Day: Unlocked Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G at $375 off
by Steven Parker
In today's Amazon Deal of the Day, you can save $375 off on the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G and $200 off on the non Ultra 5G variant. The Note20 series launched last summer and we reviewed the European Note20 Ultra 5G variant which you can read here. The factory unlocked phone normally costs $1299.99, but today you can grab the 128GB variant at 29% off.
Here's what we had to say about this phone in our review
The main problem we had with it was the price. Here's the full spec sheet:
Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+
Octa-core (1x3.0 GHz Kryo 585 & 3x2.42 GHz Kryo 585 & 4x1.8 GHz Kryo 585) GPU Adreno 650 Display 6.9 inches, 1440x3088, 525ppi, 120Hz FHD or 60Hz QHD, Dynamic AMOLED 2X Body 161.9x73.7x7.8mm (6.37x2.90x0.31in), 186g (6.56oz) Camera 108MP main + 12MP ultra-wide + 12MP telephoto, Front - 10MP Video 8K - 24fps, 4K - 60fps, HDR10+, Front - 4K - 60fps Aperture f/1.8 + f/2.0 + f/3.0, Front - F/2.2 Storage 256GB UFS 3.0 RAM 12GB Battery 4,500mAh, 25W fast charging 5G Sub6 + mmWave Color Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black, Mystic White OS Android 10 with OneUI 2.5 Price $924.99 In addition to this Mystic Black variant, a couple of other colors are available for the Note20 Ultra:
Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, 128GB Mystic Bronze at $375 off for $924.99 (list price $1299.99) Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, 128GB Mystic White at $375 off for $924.99 (list price $1299.99) Here are the specs for the Note20 5G:
Galaxy Note20 5G
6.7-inches flat FHD+ Super AMOLED Plus, Infinity-O Display (2400x1080), 393ppi, HDR10+ certified, 60Hz display
75.2 x 161.6 x 8.3mm, 194g
12MP, F1.8, 79 degrees,
Super Speed Dual Pixel AF, 1.8μm pixel, OIS
12MP, F2.2, 120 degrees, 1.4μm pixel
64MP, F2.0, 76 degrees, 0.8μm pixel, OIS, Telephoto: 3X hybrid optical zoom
Up to 8K at 24fps
10MP, F2.2, 80 degrees, 1.22μm pixel, dual pixel AF
7nm Snapdragon 865+ (U.S., 5G)
4,300mAh, 25W fast charging
Android 10 with One UI 2.5
LTE/5G (sub6 + mmWave)
Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, Type-C, NFC
Ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor
Samsung Pay (NFC payments)
Stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos
IP68 water and dust resistance
Galaxy Note20 5G, 128GB Mystic Bronze at $200 off for $799.99 (list price $999.99) Galaxy Note20 5G, 128GB Mystic Gray at $200 off for $799.99 (list price $999.99) Galaxy Note20 5G, 128GB Mystic Green at $200 off for $799.99 (list price $999.99) At the time of writing, neither Note20 variants have the larger 512GB model available to purchase. This deal is part of a wider sales promotion by Samsung on Amazon that you can check out here, some deals, like this one, are for today Feb 24 only, and others are flash deals or for the whole week.
This deal qualifies for free delivery and free returns even without Prime. You can also add a 3-Year Accident Protection plan for an additional $99.99.
Get the Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G for $924.99 (list price $1299.99) at Amazon
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